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Is science a property of nature or a property of us?

  1. May 15, 2005 #1
    So I've been thinking lately about what physics is really about.

    Isn't it true that at the end of the day physics is just a logical construction for us to understand the material world? Nobody has ever litterly 'seen' enities like energy, charge, electrons or even time and space. Simply becouse they do not really exist in the material world. These are properties of the human interpretarion of the world we live in.

    Or do the entities of physics really actualy exist in nature? Meaning that there is ACTUALY energy floating around everywhere this room but we just can't see it. If this is really so then science just took some sort of a right guess postulating it's existence.

    If we look at modern QM we see that sometimes we accept this view. But then isn't is true that really ALL of physics is a logical construction?

    Does any of you think it is wrong for scientists to accept such an anti-realistic view?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 15, 2005 #2
    IF when you say "us" you mean humanity, then my answer to the question title is yes and no.

    yes because science (including physics) is something we invented, although it is to understand other things (= in the case of physics in particluar) it is of us.

    no because it is not a fisical property.
  4. May 15, 2005 #3


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    Science as instrumentalism is not at all an unpopular view in contemporary academia. Perhaps the most notable issues are two:

    (1) There is no way to know that any given theory that is currently accepted is a true theory. Even if it explains the relevant data perfectly, there might be another theory we have no yet thought of with equal explanatory and predictive power.
    (2) On the other hand, it is very difficult to contend that a particularly novel theory that is able to make accurate and unanticipated predictions and is at the same time elegant and powerful, has no correspondence with reality.
  5. May 15, 2005 #4


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    Well "charge" is more like a quality and i dont understand how we havent seen space. If you want to bring electrons into that then you might as well bring protons and then atoms , which we have seen. We also see everything around us which is just a large number of these things you claim we have never seen.
  6. May 16, 2005 #5
    It is often accepted in philosophy of science that a theory is good whenever it is empiricaly adaquate. That is to say, when it matches the the experimental data, it is a theory that we can work with. But in order to do so, it does not nececeraly have to corresponde with reality.

    About space and time, this is where it gets tricky. The basic idea around this (I believe this was made up by Locke I think) is that we only experience physical things, one cannot experience a thought or 'thinking' in general. Now he claims, and so do I, that abstractions like time and space are not truly fysical. They are logical constructions in which we 'order' events. Now, what we might experience is the fact that I am standing further away from you then something else, but that is not litterly experiencing space. As for time, things are a bit different but it all comes down on the same thing: when looking at a clock you do not actualy see time.

    This is not about 'beeing able to see' or 'beeing able to verrify what we see'. The idea here is that the actual world of matter behaves in it's own way of which we have no direct access. We interpret it in our own way by creating entities such as charges and elektrons or whatever you might use for example. These are names we give to natures entities and we create properties for them that 'fit' with the empirical data. These a are human abstractions, logical constructions. But they say nothing about what the 'world of matter' actualy is like. So if we would have direct access to it then the 'things we see around us' could appear to be something quite different than impulse or energy or elektrons. It is a world of itself. The things we see around us, well, we actualy have no clue what they litterly are, we just associate them with our scientific abstractions...

    This discussion is going to be interesting... :tongue:
  7. May 16, 2005 #6


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    I think that our picture of nature in our scientific minds have to be isomorphic at some level to the "real picture" of nature. I find this analogous to having a map of the united states, the map being our human interpretation of nature, or our theories, and nature being of course, the united states. The map alone serves it's purpose perfectly, since we can use it to theorize accurately how to get from say, San Jose, CA, to New York, NY; without actually making the journey. The physical journey would be the experiment testing out how "detailed" or "accurate" the map(theory) is.
  8. May 17, 2005 #7


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    Science is our best guess, which assumes we live in a universe governed by cause and effect that can be tested by observation.
    Last edited: May 17, 2005
  9. May 17, 2005 #8
    We have to name all phenomena we sense (both directly and indirectly), otherwise we could not say much of anything. Also we have to distinguish between abstract quantities and absolute quantities (i.e photons are absolute because we sense them).
  10. May 17, 2005 #9
    If everything we see is imaginary, then why do all of our equations and predictions on what variables effect other variables add up in experiments?

    Like I have always said...
    If we can land man on the moon, make an A-bomb, and accuratly predict the world around us through equations, there must be some accuraccy to what we know (about physics).
  11. May 17, 2005 #10
    How can a photon ever be a absolute quantity? We do not sense photons, we sense something that we have called light and predict that it consists of photons. But we do not even know how these phonons would look like, infact we don't even know if the are particles or waves so how can such a thing ever be considerd to be an absolute quantity?

    Simply because we just chose them right. We made up models that fit the experiments perfectly well and that's why they add up to the empirical data. There's nothing onlogical about something 'imaginary' beeing in perfect accuraccy with the actual reality. But I think I'm starting to repeat myself :uhh:
  12. May 18, 2005 #11
    To extend your point, as I agree in part: even if we know what something looks like, it is US knowing what it looks like. That is, it is the human brain that knows things and then describes knowing said things. We are so human, the fact may escape us, but what we know is what is knowable by humans. We don't know things that humans never will know. That is, we have human knoweldge and constructs (and only those constructs and knowlege). What we experience -- be that waves or particles -- is neither here-nor-there, in one sense, because no matter how we experience it, it is a human experience described by the things that make sense to human neural pathways. Which is to say, that the subject of knowability is not about abstract absolutes, but about what the human can and does know.

    Simply put, we don't know absolutes, we know things. We don't know Platonic Ideals (of which there are no such things), but we know what comes into our experience. I think this aproximates part of what you are intimating.

    Even relating one thing to another and talking about "cause" is a human activity. Causality is what we use to make sense of interacting objects. We like to say that a ball moved because another ball hit it (in the case of billards). I don't want to oppose Kant here, but I will at least give nod to the fact that humans are keen at ascribing causality, and that causality being confirmed by our experience may be nothing more than that. Namely, saying that one ball moved because another hit it is a human thing to do. Kant, who recoiled at this notion, may have been too ready to defend deistic notions -- as if people saying this sort of thing were trying to erase all notions of "Divine Other". That simply is not the case. To wrestle with these subjects without wanting to find recourse in answers about absolutes or divine space is not atheistic, but it is trying to use the human brains we have. It is to acknoweledge our humanity. We are human and causality is how we make sense of the world. So, for example, we can say that a thing was destroyed because something destroyed it. We can find causality and decide what to do in relationship to that idea (it seems like many animals lack this skill).

    What we can say about the things we all experience (in common as humans), is that there are common descriptions of those things. For example, it is common to describe circles by the notion of pi. Or sweet things as sweet. "Sweet", or pi, as we know them, are useful. So this is no rejection of knowing things with cetainty, it is just to say that pi or "sweet" are ways of describing that make great sense to us humans. And, no matter where we go, we will always be human, so pi will remain a useful description for us.

    And, I should note, there is no such thing as pi to an infinit number of digits to be found (at least I don't have any reason to suspect it). Pi is a way of describing a circle, but no such circle exists in nature such that if we measure its C/D ratio we will be able to generate an infinite number of digits that come to be pi. Even if we go to the atomic level, we won't find this kind of object. Yet, pi remains useful, and it remains the best way to deal with circle objects. All I am saying is that it is not an absolute in the Platonic sense -- it is a human accepted number that makes sense to us, and fits with how we like to describe circles. Try to describe a circle to a non-human using pi and you will find that the animal (or thing) does not get the same happiness about the number that we do.

    No time to spell check, as I spent my time typing...

  13. May 18, 2005 #12
    Because they're all imaginary, too. The equations, the predictions, the variables, the effects, the experiments...

    ...the man on the moon, the A-bomb, the accurate predictions etc are all imaginary. You can't argue against this position. On the other hand, you can choose not to hold it.

    So let us agree that not everything is imaginary. That is, the world that we experience is real ... or at least some of it is. This is much more interesting, at any rate. So, your question arises ... is there some sort of "accuracy to what we know (about physics)". Surely we must be on the right path if we can predict the right amount of bending of light by the Sun or if we can harness the energy of nuclei to kill millions of people in the blink of an eye? I suggest the answer is ... we can never be sure. After all, what we are able to extract from reality may be the very things that our equations "predict". To explain by way of an analogy: a certain process produces an ordered list of numbers : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, ... but we are only able to detect 2, 3, 5, 7, ... So we notice a pattern ... ooh! they're all prime numbers ... and we invent some theory that explains why this process always produces prime numbers. In this example, the theory doesn't depict reality ... it depicts the mask through which we perceive reality.
  14. May 18, 2005 #13
    I'm glad some people feel the same way (or at least almost the same way) as I do. I totaly agree with cragwolf and SteveRives about the difference between experiencing and knowing.
    As for the causality thing, I think Kant made some very interesting notions on this indeed. It might be just an useful way of viewing things, it does not garranty to give us any information about reality.

    I don't like the word imaginary but as for the man on the moon..I think (and hope!) that was not actualy imaginary. It was probaly a real event that actualy occoured, it was just the imaginary equations that brought us there.

    Or could it all have been made up and recorded in a hollywood basment?? :surprised
  15. May 18, 2005 #14
    Then it is my pleasure to bring up the work of Lakoff, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being

    Very few things I ever say are original to me, and my previous thouts are no excetion. I am getting a lot of help from Lakoff, as he is one who I find best representing the non-Platonic view of Mathematics. I can't fully endorse him as a political author, but his work as a cognitive researcher is staggering.
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